The Traditions of Photography

This essay was adapted from one previously published in LensWork Magazine.

On the road from fish, bird, and ape to the war-waging animal of our time, on the long road by which we hope in time to become men and gods, it could not have been the “normal” ones that had pressed forward from stage to stage. The normal ones were conservative, they clung to what was healthy and traditional. ~Hermann Hesse

In 1923, photographer Paul Strand wrote an essay for the British Journal of Photography in which he lamented, “… photography has a tradition, although most of those who are photographing today seem to be unaware of the fact.” He then admonished, “… if you want to photograph, and if you are not living on a desert island, look at this tradition critically.” Taking his own advice, Strand then proceeded to berate what at that time was photography’s most prominent tradition, Pictorialism, suggesting, “If you let other people’s vision get between the world and your own, you will achieve that extremely common and worthless thing, a pictorial photograph,” and concluding that the achievement of a worthwhile photograph means that “there are no short cuts, no formulae, no rules except those of your own living.”

Like Strand, I never quite accepted the unquestioning preservation of traditions for the sole reason that they are traditions. In my mind, the way to honor traditions is to remember and to study them, to learn about and from them, to adopt those portions of them that are useful and honorable; but not to blindly insist on keeping alive those that are no longer beneficial or relevant in the context of one’s own life and work.

The reason I mention Strand here, and his essay dating back more than ninety years, is that as I interact with fellow photographers I find that the knowledge of photography’s evolution also separates those who consider themselves “traditionalists” (whether practicing such traditions or having a degree of familiarity with them) from those who pursue photography with the primary goal of recording aesthetically pleasing scenes without regard to the medium’s rich, albeit relatively short, history. With the benefit of having observed both persuasions for some time, I find that there is more to the separation than merely who knows what, and how much.

Much time had passed since Strand wrote his essay. Pictorialism is still practiced by some but is by no means the mainstream doctrine in photography today; and the means of producing photographic images are now more accessible and easier to use than ever. It is worthwhile, I think, to pause and reflect on photography’s traditions in a world that Strand, his predecessors, and his contemporaries likely could not have even predicted—a world of instant gratification, automation, and the Internet—where those who know about photography’s traditions, let alone practice them, are becoming progressively rare.

As I think about what makes one a traditionalist, I realize that the distinction goes deeper than merely the knowledge of some processes, or having an interest in the history of the medium. Indeed, I think that the world of photography has transitioned into new hands. It used to be that photography was the favored avocation of introverts, allowing unquestioned solitary time in a darkroom—a private world behind a closed door where magic unfolded in development trays under the eerie glow of a safelight, and where one could be alone with their thoughts, disconnected from society, without having to explain. The photographer then was an eccentric, an alchemist, an observer. Today’s mainstream photographers seem almost the opposite: bold and outspoken and public; no longer experiencing, observing, and reacting, but planning and executing, broadcasting and marketing not only their photographs and thoughts but also their travels, corporate sponsors, and lifestyles, and even their most trivial accomplishments, to the widest audience they can reach. Most of today’s photographers no longer spend intimate hours processing and printing their work, and often go out of their way to promote tips and tricks and commercial services for minimizing and shortcutting such prolonged and solitary aspects of photography. In a sense, the tradition perhaps most obviously lost is that of finding profound pleasure and value in the photographic process, not to the detriment of the finished image, but as an indispensable and immensely pleasurable means to it.

The worlds of introverts and extroverts are difficult to bridge. One does not fully understand the other and often considers it anathema. And yet, having observed both for some time I lament some of what was lost, not in terms of tradition, but in terms of lessons once learned, and now forgotten or unknown; and which can greatly enrich one’s joy of photography in ways not usually explained or taught in today’s photographic classes and texts.

And so, my advice to those not versed in the traditions of photography is not necessarily to practice them, but to learn the histories and philosophies of those who did. It is hard to explain the value of finding contentment and flow in one’s process to someone who had not already experienced them, or who does not naturally gravitate toward such states of mind. And yet, there is no denying their power. There is more to tradition than mixing chemistry or using certain equipment. Today, photographers no longer are forced to slow down by the nature of the technology available to them, but can still choose to do so and reap the associated rewards.

Beyond the works of contemporary photographers we also have at our fingertips today immense knowledge, ideas and accounts dating back to the invention of photography, and that may be of great benefit, not for tradition’s sake, but so that we may see further from the shoulders of the giants that preceded us, and perhaps give rise to a few giants of our own that will some day empower those to follow to see further still.


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5 thoughts on “The Traditions of Photography

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  1. Indeed, reading the notes from and about the masters can help our photography today. Reading Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and other pioneers in bringing photography forward as a legitimate art form does far more than teach us history. These photographers and others share their experiences and we benefit from getting ‘inside their heads,’ if for no other reason that we understand what they were thinking when they built a photograph. We may not like their photography or may try to emulate it, depending on our tastes, but the simple fact is that by looking at their notes we become better photographers. I’m enjoying your Landscape Photographer’s Photoshop Book because of the unique approach you take to the process of making photographs. I appreciate that you talk about visualization and actually thinking about an image as a complete work of art rather than the ‘spray and pray’ approach so common today (even in my photography, I confess). Thanks!

  2. Guy, very enjoyable article. I enjoy all of your musings even though I only comment very now and then. Years ago the when I was still lugging a 4X5 field camera and had just purchased an exciting new 1MP(!!) camera, I also picked up a copy of ‘Group f/64’ by Allinder and really enjoyed reading it. It became a guiding light for the philosophical basis of my work up to that point. I now consider your book ‘More Than a Rock’ to be my guide to improving my work. I came to photography early in life but late in terms of time and effort expended. I wish I had not wasted so many hours pursuing career that I never gained a solid foothold in photography. I know I will struggle until my death to achieve my goals but the chase will be fun!! Thanks Tom

  3. My dates are all wrong! I followed the f64 philosophy from the early 70’s with writings by AA, Strand and others. The Allinder book was from the 2000’s and I just got myself confused. sometimes dates are just, well, dates!! Sorry for the error.Tom

  4. Guy, I take inspiration from both your images and your words. Thank you.

    Another aspect of photographic history that has intrigued me as a landscape photographer is looking at the visual and personal relationships between writers, painters and photographers to understand how the idea of “landscape” has developed. For example, we are all influenced by earlier images of Yosemite before we go on to see it and picture it in our own ways. I was intrigued to find that Carleton Watkins and Edweard Muybridge, John Muir and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Albert Bierstadt were all working in Yosemite during the 1870s and knew or at least met and talked with each other in various combinations at various times. The influences are visible in their works.

    Knowing this makes me more curious about who influences my work and how, as well as how I find my own way of expressing what I experience.

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